MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “South Island”

Mount Fyffe

Since moving to New Zealand 5.5yrs ago I’ve summited a good few mountains, often with peaks that are around the same height as or taller than, the tallest mountain of my homeland, Scotland. But the actual altitude gain of the hike varies quite a lot. An impressive summit height is not always reached by way of an equally impressive altitude gain, depending on how far into the mountains the starting point is. But standing on the Kaikoura Peninsula looking inland at the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges of the Southern Alps, my hike for the day looked daunting. For this time round I would be starting close to sea level, and there was a lot of mountain to climb.

 

In February whilst up in Kaikoura for a long weekend, it was the Monday when the conditions were right to head up, and I set off after breakfast down the back roads to reach the carpark. But these back roads were actually a bit of an adventure as repairs following the November 14th earthquake were under way and the road conditions were interesting to say the least. The latter section of the drive on Postmans Road is unsealed and where it went up a steep embankment, my car lost traction on the stony track. Thankfully no-one was coming in the other direction. Parked up and kitted out, I was then ready to set off.

The track itself is a well-defined 4×4 track, quite wide although in places the substrate can be slippy under foot. In the lower section, there was evidence of recent landslips, evidence of the earthquake and some of the rains that have fallen since. It is a steady and zig-zagging climb surrounded by trees with the initial views being of the river valley where the braided Kowhai river snakes through on route to the Pacific Ocean which is also just visible beyond the flatness of the Canterbury Plains to the east. There were portions of this lower section that were shaded, but once the zig-zagging stopped, the rest of the hike was almost completely exposed to the elements, so under a nearly-cloudless sky, I was slapping on the sunscreen like it was going out of fashion. I learnt early on that my Scottish skin burns in little time at all in the Southern Hemisphere summer so from November through to March, I’m permanently shiny with the oil effect of sun lotion.

 

I was enjoying this hike from very early on, and despite being overtaken by a few other hikers, I still felt I was maintaining a good pace. With increasing height, it was possible to appreciate the Kaikoura Peninsula starting to jut out into the Pacific Ocean as well as the peak of Mt Fyffe in the distance, and eventually a lookout was reached on a little flat outcrop of land from where the Kowhai River could be seen snaking across the plains. Continuing on from here, the track continued onwards until it reached an area overlooking Sandy Saddle where the mountains behind Mt Fyffe were the dominant view. The Kaikoura Ranges were a beautiful and staggering view with their steep sides and green vegetation, and sneaking in and out of sight in the valley below was the upper reaches of the Kowhai River. There were puffs of clouds above these inland mountains but otherwise it was exceptionally clear.

 

There was a short flat section before once again the gradient steepened and the track zig-zagged again. The view was staggering in every direction and already I was approaching the 1000m (3281ft) mark and beyond. Then further along the track, a junction appeared where the Spaniard Spur track offers a steep descent down to the Kowhai River. From here it is just a few minutes walk to the Mt Fyffe Hut at 1100m (3609ft) where there is a drop toilet and the ability to sleep, shelter and cook. There was a couple there that had come up the day before in the bad weather and camped the night, waking up to a beautiful sunrise. From here, the view out to the Kaikoura Peninsula was unobstructed and I can only imagine how amazing that dawn view would have been from there.

 

Leaving the hut and several other hikers behind, I continued on up the summit track which is narrower, cutting through a copse, before again starting its long snaking wind up the ridgeline. The stony ground was a slip hazard in places and I passed several people heading down from the summit. The further I walked I could now see some clouds whipping down into the valley between the two lines of mountains and I always find it fascinating watching the clouds form, swirl, then disperse. I imagined what it would have felt like to have been up Mt Fyffe the night of the earthquake as I saw large stones and boulders littered across the path. It’s one thing to feel a large earthquake when you are home in your own bed away from the epicentre, but I think it would have been very different to be in a hut 1100m (3609ft) up a mountain right over the source.

 

Higher still there were some sections of walking through tightly packed bushes, and eventually I reached a sign denoting 1500m (4921ft). It was incredible to look back down at the ridgeline already hiked and the Pacific Ocean was now a huge expanse spreading out to the east. The cloud was really starting to build up now over the valley at times obliterating the view of the neighbouring mountains. But still the track climbed higher until close to the summit it felt like I was walking into the cloud. I reached Mt Fyffe summit at 1602m (5256ft) just as the last people there were leaving, and so I had it to myself.

 

Looking west, the cloud bank was now thick and it swirled upwards to hover above my head where it was dissipating in a wisp that looked like a large wave about to break. Out east though, the coastline was mostly clear and Kaikoura lay sprawled out below me, stretching along the coastline of the peninsula. The Pacific Ocean shimmered by its side. A couple of picnic benches were handily placed to give a rest spot with a view. It was a little chilly now with the altitude and the clouds overhead, and unfortunately the view west was mostly obliterated, but I enjoyed my lunch in peace and quiet, only being joined by another hiker when I was getting ready to leave.

 

As I returned to the track to head down, the swirling clouds gave me sneaky peaks of the mountains hidden behind them and it really split the view in two. There was still plenty of people heading up as I was going down, by now in the early afternoon. The hut seemed deserted when I reached it again and now there were large shadows created by the clouds behind and to the side of me. The best of the weather is always in the mornings in the mountains, so it pays to set off early for the best views. But as the altitude started to drop away, and the track moved south, the clouds were left behind and the sunshine remained, treating me to a very pleasant walk back to my car. The view steadily dropped away again until I was back amongst the trees, snaking my way down the final decline towards my waiting car. I had a long drive back to Christchurch to get under way, and first I had to negotiate the track that I had lost traction on on the way in. Thankfully my car managed the incline in reverse without problems, and picking my way past the potholes, missing verge and diggers, I made my way back to Kaikoura, and set off on the long drive home.

Kaikoura – Open for Business

In February 2012 I left New Zealand’s North Island behind¬†and set foot on the South Island for the first time in my life. I jumped straight on the train at Picton and travelled along the scenic Coastal Pacific route to reach Kaikoura, a small town spread along the Pacific coastline and within a few hours of arriving there I met a Kiwi bloke from Auckland, a man who to this day is still my partner. On our one year anniversary we returned to Kaikoura to partake in some wildlife spotting activities that I’d missed out on the first time around and since then we’ve stopped in on the place when passing north to Picton. And so I’d planned on doing again on my return from the Queen Charlotte Track in November 2016, having booked a night’s stay in Kaikoura as well as a trip out to see the local whales. But just 12 days before that night, the November 14th earthquake hit and the town, the coastline and the road north was closed down. I was keen to get up there as soon as road access was gained and finally a suitable weekend arose so that my partner and I (and some relatives in tow) could return to Kaikoura.

At the end of February when we travelled there, there were two points of access to the town: the Inland road, route 70, which cuts west to State Highway 7, or State Highway 1 (SH1) which heads south to Christchurch. The inland route is open 24/7 although there are many speed restrictions in place. SH1 was (and at the time of writing still is) only open during the day and is also subject to sudden closures in the event of bad weather or aftershocks. But Kaikoura is very much open for business and is still more than worthy of a visit.

The drive north from Christchurch is interesting to say the least. Prior to Cheviot (which has some clay cliffs nearby which are worthy of a detour) there is little to suggest that anything is amiss, but after stopping here for coffee on route, we drove the next section with fresh eyes. With a mixture of detours, speed limits and one-laned sections, SH1 snakes the familiar route north to the east coast and this is the most dramatic section of the drive where rubble still scatters the roadside and the train line disappears into rocks or blocked tunnels. I knew that the sea bed had lifted a metre or so along here, but the tide was out making it difficult to appreciate what was new. It had been a couple of years since I’d last passed through here so the coastal effects weren’t immediately obvious. Eventually arriving into Kaikoura we headed straight to the peninsula to walk the coastal walkway.

This is a beautiful and easily accessed walk from Kaikoura, following the cliffs round the peninsula’s coastline. We started at the south end which has a less steep though longer ascent, and it was a gloriously sunny day. There was definitely more rocks above sea level than I remembered but with the low tide I couldn’t quite decide how much of a difference there was. It took looking back at old photos once home to realise just what a difference there actually was. But nonetheless, this walk is stunning. With views out over the sparkling Pacific Ocean, and back towards Kaikoura town and the Kaikoura Ranges behind it, it was a popular walk. From up high, it is sometimes possible to spot dolphins and fur seals, although the wildlife spotting is best done out on a boat or down near the water. Kaikoura is famous for whale watching thanks to a deep ocean trench not far from shore, but it’s not common to see whales from the shore. There is also a pathway that follows the coast at sea level, and this allows a closer look at New Zealand’s fur seals. The Kaikoura coastline is a fantastic and fairly guaranteed viewing location for fur seals, but like any wildlife, they should be viewed from a safe distance and always given respect.

Kaikoura Peninsula coastline 2017

The same view in 2013

Walking the Kaikoura Peninsula walkway 2017

The same view in 2013

After reaching the car park on the northern aspect of the peninsula, we headed to a lookout which gives a cracking view towards the Kaikoura Ranges, part of the Southern Alps that spans the length of the South Island. My whole reason for wanting to go to Kaikoura last year was to hike Mount Fyffe, one of the distinctive peaks behind the town. The hiking track had remained closed for months following the earthquake but I had been excited to learn that it had reopened shortly before our trip. Whilst my partner and his relatives were on a sightseeing mission, I had a long weekend, and was planning on staying behind to hike after they headed back to Christchurch.

After checking in to our accommodation we took a walk to the main street to go to the pub for a drink in the sun. It was nice to see plenty of people about, but in relative terms, the town was very quiet considering this was normally their peak season. It was sad to see the place that I had met my partner was closed down, as was the place that we stayed on our anniversary. Even the pub we usually went for breakfast at was closed. One of the stores that I was keen to visit had also gone, and it was clear that there had been widespread effects from the earthquake. Thankfully the wildlife, which is one of the big draws for the town is still around, although the risen sea bed has influenced the way the whale watching tours run, and one of the area’s great spots for seeing fur seal pups, the Ohau Falls, is sealed off and unreachable. But the whale watching and dolphin swimming tours are still running and seem to be just as popular as ever. By all accounts, there is no reduction in sightings either, so thankfully, some businesses are able to function in a nearly normal manner.

After drinks on a rooftop at one of the pubs that was still open, we headed out for dinner at a pizza parlour. The owner’s home was unlivable and he had been moved around a few times over the past few months. Whilst I am painfully introverted, my partner loves making conversation with shop owners and staff wherever we go so we got chatting to a few locals over the weekend, enquiring how things had been for them. There was many concerns for the future for several of them, especially as some of the businesses rely heavily on the profits made through a busy summer season to get them through the quieter winter season. For many, there were big financial concerns.

The next morning we ate breakfast in a local cafe. I had planned to hike Mt Fyffe that day but the weather was dismal and the tops of the mountains weren’t even visible. My partner and his relatives were leaving soon and I pondered what to do with myself. By coincidence, I spotted a poster on the cafe wall for a free concert in Kaikoura that very day to raise the spirits of the locals and figured that would be fun. In the meantime, I headed past some murals to the Kaikoura museum, a new addition to the town which hadn’t existed the last time I was there. I didn’t expect much, but with the rain turned on and not much else to do, I paid the entrance fee and made a point of reading every single display sign that was there. A little jumbled and haphazard, it was actually interesting enough to while away a good amount of time. Other people came and went but I slowly meandered around. There was information about the fauna of the area, the whaling history of the area, immigration and it even contained the entire old jail which was effectively a two-roomed building: a normal cell and a padded cell for those deemed mentally disturbed. The staff at the museum seemed rather surprised at the amount of time I was in the museum for, but I emerged to a drier sky.

It remained cloudy but dry for the afternoon. I took my time wandering along the long shoreline to the Pier Hotel where the concert was taking place. I figured I’d hang out for an hour or so before continuing along to the fur seal colony on the peninsula, but with the likes of Sunshine Sound System, Tiki Taane and Peacekeepers playing I ended up staying till the end of the show. Entrance was free but the sale of food and alcohol was going towards a community rebuild and it was great to see such an event taking place. There was a good crowd, and I sat first on the shore taking in the view with the music as my background, then later I joined the crowd by the stage to dance the hours away. It was pitch black by the time I left, and I headed back to my hostel in the dark.

The next morning was the glorious day I was wanting for my hike. It was a little cold first thing as I headed out to the peninsula to enjoy breakfast whilst looking out for fur seals. The Kaikoura Range brooded behind the town and I contemplated the amount of altitude gain I had to make that day. I anticipated a tough hike. Again, I couldn’t quite decide if the amount of rocks was tidal-related or uplift related, but I managed to spot a heron and as is often the case here, a sleeping fur seal lay right next to the car park. But soon it was time to head off for the hike. I anticipated a full day’s walk and then I had to drive straight back to Christchurch afterwards. I always love visiting Kaikoura. It is such a stunning setting and a great place for both relaxation and activity. It is most definitely open for business, albeit in a slightly reduced capacity, but now more than ever, this place needs visitors. Although it is not as straightforward to get there as it used to be, it is still very much worth the detour.

Mount Herbert via Packhorse Hut

Once upon a time, two large volcanoes stood side by side on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. As they eroded, the craters formed two large harbours which today are known as Lyttelton harbour and Akaroa harbour. The volcanic remains have become the mountainous playground of Banks Peninsula, a stark contrast to the flatness of the Canterbury Plains which sit immediately to the west. Christchurch, the south island’s largest city, nestles just the other side of the Port Hills, making the peninsula a perfect spot for getaways from the city.

Standing proudly behind Diamond Harbour, Banks Peninsula’s tallest peak, Mount Herbert is a great choice for hiking. With a choice of four main routes up, I am slowly but surely working my way through the route options. I first summited Mt Herbert via Orton Bradley Park, a track that requires private transport to get to the starting point, and since then, I took the most popular route up from Diamond Harbour which can be reached by public transport from Christchurch. I later found out about another route up from Kaituna Valley and this again requires your own transport to reach the starting point. Unlike the other two routes which start from the northern aspect, this third route starts from the south.

From Christchurch city centre it is a 45min drive curving round the side of the Port Hills on the Akaroa road before cutting up the Kaituna Valley road past open farmland, eventually arriving at Parkinson’s Road. It was a hot sunny February day when I pulled up around 11am and there was barely any space left to park. I had planned on setting off earlier to beat the heat, but as often happens on a Sunday, I’d enjoyed a bit of a lie in before eventually getting out of bed. So as I stepped out my car, the dashboard thermometer was already reading 26oC. It was going to be a scorcher.

The track I was kicking off on was to take me to one of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) huts called the Packhorse Hut. Even this hut itself has a few options to reach there, and being within easy reach of Christchurch, it is a popular destination for people to go for a night. As such, it requires to be booked. The DOC sign stated a 2hr walk to reach the hut, and the track starts off across private farming land. Stiles are provided to cross the fences meaning gates don’t need to be touched, and at the time I was hiking, stock was everywhere. It is important not to worry stock when passing over private land, but sheep being sheep, they often make it very hard to get past them without them getting spooked.

 

There is quite a long and relatively gentle meander across the farmland before finally the wide track zig-zags across a stream and starts climbing. And once the climb starts, it just keeps on going. The summer just passed did not offer much opportunity to get up into the mountains unlike the summer before, so despite hiking the Queen Charlotte Track just 2.5 months prior, I was out of shape once more. The gradient of this hike should have been well within my capabilities but instead I found myself huffing and puffing in the heat and needing to stop often. Once the trees parted though, the view opened up more and more and looking behind me the Pacific Ocean was glinting in the sunlight through a gap in the hillside, and in front of me lay the distinctive peak of Mt Bradley. Now I started to enjoy the hike.

 

There was plenty of other people on the track heading both up and down, although most people had been sensible enough to head off hours before me, so most of the people I saw were on their way back from the hut. When I reached the Packhorse Hut there were several people milling about inside and out, and others still could be seen on the track up from Gebbies Pass to the north. Directly in front was the Port Hills across the harbour, behind which lies Christchurch, and just peaking into view was the head of Lyttelton Harbour.

 

Built of local volcanic stone in 1914, the Packhorse Hut is one of four stone huts built as a resthouse for a proposed walking route between Christchurch and Akaroa. The brainchild of Harry Ell, a city councillor and member of parliament in the early 1900s, he was well known for his interests in recreation and conservation, and played a role in the creation of many of the reserves that now exist on the Port Hills. Whilst only three of his resthouses came to pass in his lifetime, a fourth followed after his death and all of them still stand to this day. The Sign of the Kiwi at the top of Dyers Pass road is a cafe, having recently reopened following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010/2011. The Sign of the Takahe lower down Dyers Pass road is a restaurant, although it still remains closed for repairs following the earthquakes. The Sign of the Bellbird off Summit road started life as a tearoom but now is really just a shelter. It is a great picnic spot, although unfortunately after someone set fire to the roof in 2015, it is now completely open to the elements. And the Sign of the Packhorse is what is now the DOC run Packhorse Hut.

 

After taking a quick look inside before stopping for a snack, I still had some way to go to reach Mt Herbert. It was by now about 1pm, the sun was high and the DOC sign related a 3hr hike to Mt Herbert summit. This was longer than I’d anticipated but at least there were still many hours of daylight ahead. From the hut, the track follows the Summit Walkway which has recently been renamed with its Maori name to Te Ara Pataka. The track followed the curve of the land towards a small section within the bush which was some welcome respite from the sun, but before long it was back out in the elements and the zig-zags began. About 210m (689ft) altitude gain is achieved through a series of zig-zags up the slope of Mt Bradley. Here I met a group of people coming back from the summit who seemed surprised to see me and enquired about how well equipped I was and how much water I had. It put a hint of doubt in my mind that somehow this hike was more than I thought it would be.

 

Finally though, I was on the relative flat below the bluff of Mt Bradley’s summit. The view from the track up had been impressive enough, but from this higher altitude it was stunning. Although it undulated, it stayed roughly around 720-730m (2362-2395ft) with lots of bush on either side although nothing above to shade from the sun. I was now on the lookout for a nice lunch spot but there was nowhere to stop and sit. Both ahead and behind me the track was empty of people. Most of the people at the hut turned back there, so this section of the walk was devoid of people compared to the lower section. After some time of hugging the mountainside, the track dipped slightly and went into a copse. The shade was welcome so I found a large rock to sit on to have my lunch.

 

I was in a total reverie munching away when a loud and angry yell made me jump. Somebody unseen had yelled an obscenity so loudly that I had a momentary fear about who was approaching. As the unseen man grew nearer I heard more anger, albeit at a lower volume and then round a corner in the path came a man in his 20s. He asked how far the summit was and although I wasn’t sure exactly, I surmised that it was probably 60-90mins away based on the DOC sign and how long I’d been walking for. He swore again, complained about the track dropping altitude when it was supposed to be going up and stomped off, leaving me in peace once more. As he must have also come from the Packhorse Hut, regardless of which route he took to get there, he will have passed at least one sign with a distance marker to the summit, so I couldn’t understand why he was so annoyed, when it is clearly stated the length of the hike at each stage. At least he was wearing proper shoes and had a backpack. I’ve seen many tourists hiking up mountains in jandals (flip-flops) with either no water or just a small bottle in their hand.

Finally moving on myself, it wasn’t much further till the path came out at a fence line on a low ridge past the far side of Mt Bradley. Crossing the stile, I could now see Lyttelton Harbour again, and as the path meandered on, I found myself at the junction with the track down to Orton Bradley Park. Now I was on familiar territory. Some way on I came across Mt Herbert Shelter, a small hut just off the path. It has a nice view from the front deck, but I was keen to get to the summit so I pushed on without stopping. A little up the track I passed the angry man on his return trip who still looked thoroughly grumpy, and finally I was at the familiar turn-off for the summit. It was the last push up to a relatively deserted summit. This is a popular mountain to hike, so normally the summit is busy, but after 3pm as it was, it was quite late on in the day. With a predicted high of 29oC, everybody else had been much more sensible and set off earlier in the day.

 

At 919m (3015ft), there is a beautiful 360o view over Banks Peninsula and Lyttelton Harbour as well as out to the Pacific Ocean. As always, Christchurch was under a haze but the Southern Alps mountain range was still visible in the far distance. It is a broad summit, so there is plenty of space to walk around to see different aspects and I noted that the DOC signage had been updated since I’d last been there to include its Maori name of Te Ahu Patiki. From here it is possible to continue hiking along the Summit Walkway towards Port Levy, and this is the 4th route up to Mt Herbert, and the only one I am yet to walk.

After a while it was time to head home. It had taken over 4hrs to summit, but as always the downhill is easier, and although the section below the bluffs of Mt Bradley felt like it went on forever, I was back in my car in just 2.5hrs. As I passed the Packhorse Hut, there was a family setting up a tent outside, and I met some people hiking up when I reached the flat section across the farmland. They were heading to the hut and back but had waited to escape the heat of the day. It had been a scorcher for sure, and I had worried I would run out of water, but in the end all was well. Of the 3 routes I’ve done, this is the longest one to the summit, but it was good to explore somewhere new and I always enjoy discovering New Zealand’s myriad of mountain huts.

Lake Brunner

Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. When it comes to domestic holidays, they tend to be either a roadie or city break with my partner, or an independent hiking trip in the mountains. With my partner having to work through the Christmas weekend, I on the other hand had a few days off and figured I’d make the most of the solitude bagging some summits. I was looking for somewhere that wasn’t a crazy drive away, but yet wasn’t overly familiar either, and after a bit of zooming in and out of Google Maps, I spotted what looked like the ideal location: Lake Brunner in the West Coast region. I’d passed here on the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch to Greymouth a few years ago, but otherwise hadn’t given it any attention, but looking at the landscape on Topomap, I noticed there were some mountains around the lake that would serve as good day hikes. Finding a cheap and cheerful place to stay for a few nights, I was sorted for my summer break.

But despite some cracking weather in November to hike the Queen Charlotte Track, spring and now summer weren’t showing much promise weather-wise, and as Christmas came round, the forecast was underwhelming to say the least. After finishing work on Christmas Eve, I set off from Christchurch to head west and hit a wall of grey skies as I reached the Southern Alps. Still, the road through Porters Pass then Arthur’s Pass is a scenic and enjoyable trip with plenty of choice to stop at on the way. I stopped first on the shores of Lake Lyndon which sat below Trig M, a hike I’d done earlier in the year, and then ignored the popular stops of Castle Hill and Cave Stream having done them many times before, opting instead to pull in at the lookout above the Otira Viaduct to the north of Arthur’s Pass. Aside from the view down the valley, this place is almost guaranteed for Kea sightings, and I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Before moving to New Zealand, I had no idea such a creature existed, but the world’s only alpine parrot has become my favourite bird here. Full of cheek, curiosity and highly intelligent, they are extraordinary to watch and interact with. It is important not to feed them, and also important to be aware of your belongings around them at all times, as they will do their best to relieve you of anything you leave lying around and are notorious for pulling and chewing anything that is within reach, be it tyres, aerials or cameras. They are far from shy, and sitting in the driver’s seat with my door open, I sat and watched as one cocky individual casually gnawed on the metal of my car door before striding off proud as punch.

 

Arriving at Moana on the shore of Lake Brunner the sky was still moody but there were some glints of sunshine trying to burst through in places. After checking in to my cabin in the woods just outside of the village, I parked up near the lake shore and set off on one of the local walks, the Raikatane walk. This is an easy walk that crosses a suspension bridge over the Arnold river and circles in the woods to the north, as well as offering the opportunity to explore the far shore of Lake Brunner. Apart from a few birds for company, I was effectively on my own. With tourism being a major part of the New Zealand economy, it is getting harder and harder to get away from the crowds here, meaning peace and tranquility can be a pipe dream during the summer months. Thankfully Lake Brunner flies under the radar of the vast majority of foreign tourists, and it is more the realm of domestic tourists with a high percentage of Kiwi accents being heard compared to elsewhere. In my solitude I looked across the large lake to the mountains on the far side cloaked in low clouds, their summits hidden from me. The water lapped gently on the shore as I trudged across the pebbles enjoying a brief splurge of sunshine. Back in the cabin, I had the use of a shared kitchen, and over the next 3 nights, I got to know my fellow guests as we chatted over wine and food. I’d recently discovered the most heavenly sparkling wine made at a Canterbury winery to the west of Christchurch and before I knew it I was warm and merry.

 

I awoke on Christmas Day to more grey skies. My plan was to head round to Te Kinga, a small settlement on the eastern shore in order to hike Mount Te Kinga. As I drove there I was dismayed to see the cloud was even lower than the day before and the bulk of the mountain was hidden from view. It seemed a popular place to camp for the night at the car park at Te Kinga, and as several people were stirring, I was lacing up my hiking boots and preparing to hike. As there are a couple of viewpoints overlooking the lake on the way to the summit, several people were on the trail that morning. From early on, I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I’ve hiked a lot of mountains in New Zealand, mainly in Canterbury, and although I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees, I’d never disliked a hike as much as this one. It may in part have been because I knew I’d get no view at the top, or maybe because I felt a little lonely on Christmas Day, but as much as I trudged up the hillside on autopilot, there was just no love for me that day.

 

The track was not that great either. It was reasonable quality up to the first viewpoint but then a permanent sign noted an expectation of mud, and boy was it muddy. Between the wetness of the spring and the thick foliage preventing drying, there was plenty of mud underfoot and a lot of tree roots to negotiate. To top it off, my hiking trousers ripped in dramatic fashion as I stepped up over a tree root, revealing most of my thigh and part of my crotch (albeit still thankfully covered by my underpants). Thankfully I had my waterproof trousers with me which quickly were donned to save my dignity. At the top lookout everybody else on the trail was turning back but I passed the sign warning the track was for experienced hikers only and pressed on up the increasingly rough and vague track. The vegetation was dense and after a bit of rock and root scrambling I suddenly found the route blocked by a large fallen tree. It was too high to climb over it, there was no gap to climb through or under it, and the tree was big enough and the surrounding vegetation thick enough that I couldn’t see a way around it. There was no evidence of anyone else creating a route either, so I surmised that it was a relatively recent obstruction, but try as might I saw no way to continue. It was both a frustration and a godsend as I really had had no love for this hike, and took it as an omen to turn round and head back.

 

So now I found myself with a lot of time to kill. Thankfully my lodgings had provided me with a handy area map detailing local walks, so I headed south and round the long-winded road system that had to circumnavigate Mt Te Kinga and another lake to cut back up to the south shore of Lake Brunner to head towards the settlement of Mitchells. The road degraded from a sealed road to a metalled road but it was heavily rutted in places and having replaced my banged up motor with a newer model during the winter, I was rather cautious, especially in those sections where a skid off the road would have had me in the lake. Just outside Mitchells, a pull-in denoted the start of the Carew Falls walk. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign stated 30mins each way but it was more like 15mins for me and I found myself at the base of the falls in time to see a group of people abseiling down the face. It was a beautiful cascade and I watched with intrigue as the group picked their way down, briefly chatting with them at the bottom before they left me alone with the flies. I sat for a while listening to the thundering water before the swarms of flies forced me to leave.

 

It was just a few minutes drive down to the lakeside at Mitchells to reach the Bain Bay walk. On a mixture of boardwalks and sandy tracks it curved round Carew Bay and started with such promise. I passed a sign warning of occasional flooding on the track but thought nothing of it until just 5 mins later I discovered the track disappeared into the lake. There was no way to get round it without getting very wet, and for the second time that day I found myself immensely frustrated at having my hike thwarted by the elements. It appeared the lake level was higher than normal and there was nothing I could do about it. There was at least a beautiful mirrored vista across the lake, so despite the grey skies and occasional drizzle, it was still a pretty sight to behold. Pausing briefly at the lakeside on the way back, I made my way back to Moana and passed it by in order to do yet another walk in the area. But despite the description stating the turnoff was signposted, I drove the length of the road twice and couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go. Frustrated once more and feeling deflated, I returned to my cabin in the woods, heated up my ‘gourmet’ hikers instant dinner, filled my glass with wine and parked up in front of the tv to watch Christmas Day movies.

 

To the south-west of Lake Brunner lies Mount French, my chosen summit for Boxing Day. But waking up to grey sky once more, a quick drive to the lake shore confirmed my suspicion: most of the mountain was hidden in clouds. After a disasterous attempt at Mt Te Kinga the day before, I opted to cut my losses and acknowledge that the hiking gods were not smiling down on me that weekend. Anticipating this the night before, I had done some quick reading on what my local options were, and headed north-west to the west coast a short drive north from Greymouth. Here lies the Point Elizabeth walkway, a coastal walk that can be undertaken in either direction. I chose to start at the northern end and head south, meaning I parked up just outside of Rapahoe. It was a nice walk through some tropical vegetation. The sun broke through in patches and for the most part I was on my own. The odd jogger appeared from time to time, and at the halfway mark there is a lookout at Point Elizabeth. Some information posts in a few places described the flora and the possible fauna that could be spotted but despite the relatively calm sea, I spotted no marine life that day.

 

The west coast gets the brunt of the weather as it crosses the open expanse of the Tasman Sea which separates Australia from New Zealand. As such, the west coast is a wild and battered coastline, and the beaches here are littered with washed up flotsam and are of a stony nature rather than sand. Still, from above on the track, the long stretch of beach reaching south towards Greymouth looked inviting on approach and when I reached it, I found a handy log to park my butt on for a while, and I sat there for some time contemplating life and the universe whilst listening to the waves crashing on the shore. Eventually I set off in the return direction, stopping once more at the lookout before pushing on to return to my awaiting car.

 

A short drive along the road in nearby Runanga is the Coal Creek walking track. Cutting through a pleasant forest, the track gradually descends down to meet the Coal Creek, eventually coming out above and then dropping down to face onto, the Coal Creek falls. Having passed a lot of people on the track heading back to their cars, I timed my arrival with perfection, getting the falls to myself for long enough to feel satisfied before other people started to arrive. Picking your way across the rocks at the river side allows slightly differing views of this beautiful waterfall and even though the water appeared dark under the grey sky, I really liked this waterfall. As more and more people arrived, I left them to it, and headed back up to the top of the hill to sit on the bench there and watch the falls from above for a while before heading back to my car.

 

Greymouth itself was pretty much closed down for the day as it was a public holiday. The place resembled a ghost town, so after finding somewhere that I could grab a coffee (which turned out to be a highly disappointing coffee), I crossed the Grey river to Cobden hill from where a lot of people were surfing the breaks off the beach. Nearby a small wetlands provided a nice little walk accompanied by some waterfowl and a shag drying itself on a branch.

 

Sticking to the north side of the Grey river, I headed back to Lake Brunner, stopping at the site of the Brunner mine, a coal mine which suffered an explosion in 1896 killing 65 miners. To this day, even with the tragic and relatively recent events at the infamous Pike River mine, the Brunner explosion resulted in the highest death rate in the history of New Zealand mining disasters. Thanks to the gallantry of many people, all the bodies were recovered despite horrendous conditions in the mine following the event, and it is this retrieval process that has been the object of immense contention in the more recent Pike River mine disaster where sadly the bodies of those who perished still remain out of reach in the depths of the collapsed mine. The Brunner site is worthy of a look around. The entrance to the various mine shafts are fenced off, and the few remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair, but in places a smell hangs in the air, a reminder of the dangerous gases that linger below the surface. Crossing the bridge over the Grey river, an old chimney stands tall near the roadside.

 

Thanks to a bit of guesswork on the road back to Lake Brunner, I finally found the walk I’d looked for and failed to find the day before. The Arnold Dam walk follows the Arnold river to a dam and then heads up the hillside before returning to the power station where the walk starts from. The place felt eerie and after the track quickly became unappealing, I decided that I’d walked enough that day and turned round and headed back to my cabin. Having got chatting with some fellow guests, they had attempted Mt Te Kinga themselves that day despite me telling them of the fallen tree. They reported that they had made it past the fallen tree, but yet they too had had to turn back shortly after as the track became a ghost track and impossible to follow. Waking up to heavy rain the next morning, there seemed no point in hanging around. With the rain following me almost the whole way back to Christchurch, there seemed to be no point in stopping anywhere, so I found myself back home in time for lunch. The weekend had been a perfect example of plans in the outdoors failing to come to fruition. I’d failed to summit my target mountains, although I’d certainly managed to get some walking in anyway. But at least there were only a few days of work to get through before heading to the capital for New Years. Surely the weather wouldn’t fail me for two weekends in a row…

Mount Barrosa

Despite being the last month of autumn, the weather in New Zealand’s South Island has remained relatively warm, meaning a lack of snow on the mountain tops, and an extension to my hiking season. With a multi-day hike coming up in July, I am aware that I need to keep up some degree of fitness, despite the dark nights tricking my body into a sense of hibernation. Already several weeks on from my last hike up Avalanche Peak, some good weather again coincided with a day off work, and I set off on the now-familiar route south-west from Christchurch.

About an hour and a half’s drive away, lies the small village of Mt Somers which nestles at the base of the mountain with the same name. From here, Ashburton Gorge Road winds west into Hakatere Conservation Park. Before the sealed portion of road ends, beyond which lies Mt Guy and Mt Sunday, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it car park denotes the starting point for the Mt Barrosa summit track. Arriving mid-morning on a Sunday, I had the place to myself.

Start of the hike

Initially passing through private land, the path marked by orange poles follows the fence line before crossing a small stream once and then twice to the base of the mountain. Here a stile marks the transition onto public land within the Hakatere Conservation Park. Immediately the climb starts, winding through low scrub, following a reasonably worn path marked out by orange poles. It feels like altitude is gained quite quickly without feeling too exhausting and, as many of the hikes have had, I was constantly accompanied by hopping crickets.

On the ascent

Like Mt Guy, the lack of anything other than ground vegetation, meant it was an exposed walk the whole way up. With the sun quite low in the sky in May, several portions of the trail were in shadow in the morning, but on a summer’s day, this would have been a hot one. But aside from the exposure factor, I found the hike a little uninteresting with little to look at other than the jumping crickets and the path before me. The neighbouring gullies were in shadow and the nearest birds sounded far away.

Neighbouring slope

After about 40mins, a little interest came in the form of some rock formations that the path skirted round, and each lower ridge had a differing size of rock point jutting up. Stopping to take in the view which is mostly behind you as you climb, the valley below started to open up more and more. I could see my lonely car in the car park for over the first hour of the hike, getting smaller and smaller, until the path skirted another rocky outcrop and crossed slightly over the mountain front.

The valley below

Shadows and light

One of many rocky outcrops

I reached a false summit about 1.5hrs after leaving the car behind, and only now could I actually see the summit of Mt Barrosa ahead of me. The steepest section of the hike was behind me by this point, but the path quality deteriorated from here on in, where large sections involved simply making a bee-line for the next orange pole, as it continued the ongoing climb. Now the view up the valley revealed Lake Clearwater and Mt Guy as well as Lake Heron, and this remained my view the rest of the way up.

View from the false ridge

Looking towards the summit ridge

Panorama from the mountain flank

Looking upwards

Although the gradient of the hike was not as steep as the lower section, there was a lot more scree and boulders underfoot, but the orange poles did enough to guide you in the right direction. However, when the ridge line was finally reached, even the orange poles disappeared. A fence split the ridge line in two, and it was easy to follow this until the unmarked summit (1364m) was reached. A lonely orange pole stood proud at the top, and clusters of large rocks made for an interesting summit.

Nearing the summitMt Barrosa summit

Rocky panorama

Summit panorama

I have read on some sites that from the summit, Aoraki/Mt Cook is visible, but I don’t believe this is true. There was certainly a distinctive mountain top on the horizon, but I think this is most likely Mt D’Archiac or another peak. In my mind, Mt Cook is both too far away and behind too many tall peaks to be visible from there. What is visible though, is Mt Somers and the tramping track that skirts its circumference, as well as a plethora of other mountains. Looking east, the Pacific Ocean was just visible through the haze.

Mt Somers

Mt Guy

With little to no wind at the summit, it was pleasant, and I loitered up there on my own for quite some time, enjoying the solitude and the view. It had been a while since I’d enjoyed a quiet summit, having hiked many popular routes this summer. Retracing my steps the way I had come, meant that after negotiating the upper reaches where the lack of distinct path meant a lot of foot watching, the lower portions meant I could enjoy the view a bit more. By now early-afternoon, the sun had shifted so that the shadows played out differently on the return leg. I found myself almost skipping down, and was surprised to spot another car in the car park as it came back into view. Only at the very bottom, back at the stile into private land, did I come across the occupants: a family out walking their dogs, and the only people I met on the hike. I reached my car 4hrs 5mins after leaving it behind. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the bottom lists the hike as 2.5hrs to the summit. I reached the top in about 2hrs 10mins, only a little ahead of the normally generous timing, but the ease at which I came down, meant the return leg was only about an hour. Then it was a simple case of enjoying the rest of my snacks as I headed back home to Christchurch.

Heading back down

Descending towards the false summit

Ashburton Gorge

The valley below

Avalanche Peak

Shortly after moving to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island over 4 years ago, I read about an enticing peak nestled within the Southern Alps near the village of Arthur’s Pass. I was keen to get up it but life and a dramatic change in fitness got in my way. But after spending the Southern Hemisphere’s summer hiking as many peaks within reach as the weather would allow, I finally felt that Avalanche Peak was within grasp. Only the seasons have turned, meaning shortening days and cooler weather and a risk of wind and snow about the peaks grows ever more likely. I had started to think that it would have to wait another year, when thankfully, some good weather coincided with a day off, and I realised my luck had turned.

And what a perfect day it turned out to be. The little alpine village of Arthur’s Pass is just over a 2 hr drive west from Christchurch, but nestled as it is amongst an impressive mountain range, its weather system is so very different to that of the Canterbury Plains to the east, and even with the MetService website suggesting all would be well, you are never sure what you are going to get until you get there. The west coast road from Christchurch to Greymouth is one of my favourite drives in the country. There are so many scenic routes to choose from in New Zealand, but this is the road I’ve travelled the most and it never fails to impress.

Over Porter’s Pass from where Trig M is reached, past Lakes Lyndon and Pearson, and onwards to the little settlement of Bealey Spur from where the track of the same name begins, the road winds round the towering mountains and along river beds until, shaded by the hulks of Mounts Bealey & Rolleston, Arthur’s Pass appears. Directly behind the village, the steep slope of Avalanche Peak disappeared above.

There are two routes up Avalanche Peak: the Avalanche Peak track and Scott’s track. The first begins behind the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre, and the second begins just north of the village. Due to the nature of the track, it is recommended to only ever go up the Avalanche Peak track, and not to descend by this route, meaning it should either be hiked as a loop track (up Avalanche Peak track and down Scott’s track), or ascend and descend the same way via Scott’s track. My friend and I were both happy to hike a loop, so we parked at the visitor centre and set off on the marked path behind the building that hugged the tree line.

The start of the Avalanche Peak track

Avalanche Peak route map

Almost immediately after entering the trees, the Avalanche Peak track sets off on a steep incline through the forest. Several other people were heading up at the same time and the whole way up we were playing tag with them as each of us hiked and rested at our own pace. Early on, a stream flowed down the lower rocks in a series of pretty waterfalls, but otherwise for the first hour, most of the hike involved concentrating on your feet as the best foot hold up tree roots and rock faces was sought out. Despite being physically tiring, I was enjoying the process, although it became a lot nicer of a hike when the tree line was reached after not quite an hour and a quarter. Once out of the tree line, the view in all directions was phenomenal. Ahead on the path, the various lower ridges could be seen snaking into the distance. To the left Mount Bealey, and to the right the glacier-clad summit of Mount Rolleston dominated the skyline, and behind us, the valley below opened up.

Avalanche Creek waterfall

Nearby Mt Bealey

Looking north

Looking south

It was now easy to see that this hike was extremely popular. With little wind on a gorgeously sunny autumn day, there were plenty of people strewn along the path both ahead and behind us. The higher we got, the steeper the drop-off either side became but it was an easy path to follow. Several bluffs created a dramatic vista, and later on, like so many mountains I have hiked recently, a scree slope appeared near the top. On this occasion, the path picked its way up the side of the scree, making for a winding, though relatively easy passage. In fact, despite being classed as an alpine hike requiring experience in back country navigation, this was actually not really a technical hike. Only as the summit became within reach, did it change quality.

View south from the Avalanche Peak track

Hikers ahead on the upper slopes of Avalanche Peak

Mt Rolleston peaks up behind the slope of Avalanche Peak

Avalanche Peak route disappearing up the slope

Yellow poles mark the route

Avalanche Peak's scree field

At the top of the path next to the scree field lay a cluster of large boulders that needed to be scrambled over, and then the narrow ridgeline of Avalanche Peak opened up before us. The width varied between a narrow track on a ledge next to some rocks that only 1 person could sidle along, to wider areas that a few people could sit on. As it was, the unmarked summit (1833m altitude) could sit about 6 of us comfortably whilst allowing a little space for others to move around us. Summiting just shy of 2hrs 45mins after starting, I joined my companion who had made it in less time, and we joined some others in a spot of lunch at the summit with a ream of mountain tops for company. It was simply stunning, and worth every drop of sweat on the way up.

The path already travelled

Hikers in the distance on the narrow ridge of Avalanche Peak

Arthur's Pass National Park

Sitting on the rocky summit of Avalanche Peak

The glacier on nearby Mt Rolleston

Summit view south

Summit view north & east

Summit view west

With the lack of wind, despite being autumn, it wasn’t too cold at the top, and there was little rush to leave. We saw some hikers head off the track onto the lower ridge that leads to Mt Rolleston, and still there were more and more people arriving on the upper reaches of Avalanche Peak. After about half an hour we set off, back across the narrow ridgeline towards the boulder cluster, and here the two tracks split. The Avalanche Peak track had been dotted with yellow poles, but this time, we followed the orange poles down Scott’s track.

Track across the summit ridge

Views over Arthur's Pass National Park

Whilst still steep in places, it was a much easier track to follow down, initially dropping off down the side of some impressive bluffs before rolling down a gentle slope towards the treeline. From this track, the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall was clearly visible across the valley on the opposite mountain, and it remained in view for most of the hike down. It was easy to see the west coast road continue north through the valley from here, and only now as we reached some of the lower slopes, did the wind pick up a little. It took only an hour to reach the treeline again, from where it was just another hour to reach the end of the track on the west coast road.

Bluffs in Arthur's Pass National Park

Hikers on the Scott's track above the bluffs

Tiny hiker next to large bluffs

Mountain tarn

Looking across to the far side of the valley

Looking back up Scott's track

Although the path wound its way through the lower forest, the canopy was still open enough to afford a good view for the vast majority of the descent. There was still a lot of need to watch footing through tree branches, streams and over rocks, but there was plenty of opportunity to soak up the view and the image of the waterfall changed as the perspective altered and I took my time going down to enjoy this. My companion reached the end of the track a little ahead of me as I had gone a little snap happy, but still, we were back in the village in a respectable 5.5hrs.

The far side of the valley with waterfall framed int he trees

Descending towards the west coast road

Devil's Punchbowl Waterfall

Arthur's Pass village in the valley

Full height of Devil's Punchbowl waterfall

Although for most people, Arthur’s Pass village is a convenience stop on route from coast to coast, it does have a few places to sleep as well as a couple of cafes, a small convenience store and a train station, so it is a useful place to make as a base for exploring some local hikes. Aside from the nearby mountains, there are also a few lower-level hikes, and the most popular is the walk to the base of the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. The DOC website lists the Avalanche Peak as 4-5hrs each way which is certainly being generous, but it is definitely a hike requiring a good bit of fitness, and the upper sections definitely need respect in poorer weather conditions. But steep as it was, this is now a firm favourite amongst the many hikes I’ve now down in New Zealand.

Mount Somers

With autumn starting to kick in and the end of daylight savings fast approaching, I am becoming increasingly aware that my hiking season is creeping towards its end. Once the snow starts to fall on the mountain tops and the evenings start to draw in, there won’t be the same opportunities to bag summits. With almost all of the remaining peaks on my list being within Arthur’s Pass National Park, I was dismayed to read the weather forecast for my one weekend day off was dismal and I resigned myself to a weekend without a hike. But after looking at the neighbouring regions’ forecasts, I discovered that there was the possibility of completing my list of summits in the eastern peaks by heading to Mt Somers.

About 1.5hrs drive south-west from Christchurch is the village of Mt Somers, from where a road heads deep into Hakatere Conservation Park, where I had previously visited Mt Guy and Mt Sunday. Not far from the village itself is also the turn-off to 1 of 2 car parks from where the Mt Somers track can be reached. I have been keen to walk this track which is a multi-day walk that circumnavigates the lower slopes of Mt Somers, but I just haven’t had the time. On this occasion however, I decided to tackle the summit itself, and this is best reached from the other car park near the village of Staveley.

The car park was quite full when I got there early on a Sunday morning, but with a few options for tracks from here, I wasn’t sure whether I would end up bumping into anyone else, but even as I set off on the Mt Somers (south face) track, another two cars pulled into the car park behind me. Despite being autumn, it was going to be a hot day and it wasn’t long before I was sweating. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the start noted a 5hr hike each way so I was mentally preparing myself for a long day.

Start of the hike

The first 40mins of the walk was within a tall forest, and there was a good amount of altitude gain immediately via a variable quality of track. There were plenty of tree roots and fallen branches to act as trip hazards, meaning a lot of time was spent watching my footing whilst overhead several plump kereru (wood pigeons) flitted through the trees. Shortly after leaving the car park behind I was overtaken by an older man who was power walking the track. His only belonging was a regular-sized bottle of water which looked rather small considering he was also heading for the summit. Still, he was much fitter than me, steaming ahead in no time at all.

Forest track

When the trees finally broke under the glare of the hot sun, the dramatic peak of Mt Somers was fully visible, as was the Canterbury Plains below. Through shoulder-height vegetation, the rocky path picked its way over a series of ever-higher knolls giving a fantastic and ever changing perspective on my target summit as well as the surrounding peaks. I passed a hiker heading to the car park about an hour into my hike, but otherwise there was just the sounds of nature to keep me company. I looked towards the peak and struggled to pick out where the summit route might go, and then before I knew it I had reached the junction where the summit route started. The predicted time from DOC was 2.5hrs to this junction and another 2.5hrs to the summit, but I had made it there in just 1hr and 45mins.

The first sighting of Mt Somers

The path disappearing into the trees

Canterbury Plains

Mt Somers

Mt Somers towering over the Canterbury Plains

The changing face of Mt Somers

Straight away the quality of the track changed, becoming very rocky, uneven and slightly overgrown in places. After a very brief zigzag through some lower bush, it very quickly began to climb and even early on there were patches of scree to negotiate. There was a regular need to grab onto bushes to haul myself up or steady my balance as I negotiated the slippery slopes. I hadn’t been going for long before voices on the wind alerted me to other people coming up behind me. Our paces weren’t too dissimilar in the first third of the hike so they maintained the same distance behind, however as the climb grew rougher and the boulders to negotiate grew bigger, they started to catch up.

The start of the summit track

View from the lower slope of Mt Somers

Rocky path up the slope of Mt Somers

Rocky slope of Mt Somers

Sometimes the path was obvious and other times not so much, but before long I’d reached a low ridge where it was possible to catch my breath as I finally was able to pause and soak up the view. The Canterbury Plains stretched off around me, and looking up towards the summit, the hike looked increasingly tough. All I could see was the track disappearing into a field of boulders and a steep drop either side. The summit looked still so far away. But I pressed on, and now I could see other hikers (including the man who had passed me by at the start of my hike) picking their way down from the top, and as one passed me whilst I struggled to see a route up the rocks, he told me to just make a line for the top and stick to it. There were vague signs of feet having been through some patches already, but it really was just a case of focusing on the orange pole at the top and just finding the easiest route up to it. But it was easy to get distracted and veer off to the side in search of an easier foot hold, and the couple who had been behind me all this time, overtook me. They seemed to keep a side-ways glance on me to make sure I made it, and then as if satisfied that I was on the right course, they disappeared over the ridge out of view.

The view from the first ridge

The lower ridge above the Canterbury Plains

The track disappearing into a boulder field

I felt triumphant at the top, as boulder scrambles for me are always a bit of a mental challenge, and whilst still having some way to go, I’d achieved most of the altitude by now, and it was simply a matter of traversing the boulders across a long ridge line, until the trig point (1688m) was within reach. The couple were already hunkered down against the wind that was present at the top, and I passed them by making a beeline for the monument further along the ridge. A stone cairn dated 2000 sits atop a directional marker box which contains a visitor’s book, surrounded by a wooden frame with a misspelled inspirational quote around it. Wrapped around Mt Somers is a ream of mountains stretching off into the distance and I could see the poor weather hanging over the inner Alps and shrouding the distant summits. It was a little cold with the wind so I found a semi-sheltered spot to protect myself whilst I paused for some lunch.

The view from the top of the boulder field

Boulders high above the Canterbury Plains

Walking across the ridge line to the summit

Monument at the summit

Year 2000

Monument & trig marker on Mt Somer's summit

I had summited about 3.5hrs after leaving the car park, and as time at the summit ticked on, more and more people appeared. In the end, it turned out to be a very popular walk that day, but everyone I spoke to agreed that it had been a challenge. This is definitely a hike for fit and experienced hikers only. But the reward was the sense of achievement and that view which spanned all the way out to the Pacific Ocean as well as Christchurch and Banks Peninsula in the far distance. There was no haze to cloud the view that day, and I felt like I was on top of the world.

Mt Somer's summit panorama

Mt Somer's panorama

Mt Somer's Trig panorama

Mt Somer's Trig overlooking Canterbury Plains

Mt Somer's trig

Eventually though, it was time to start the descent, and this involved as much attention to footing as the route up had. There was still a steady stream of people coming up as I picked my way down off the ridge line, and I gave a group that were struggling a bit some words of encouragement as I passed. Looking downhill, the path that had appeared vague at times looked a little more obvious with the benefit of perspective, but again I had to lower myself over rocks, squat down to slide on my feet and grab hold of branches and bushes as I gingerly picked my way down. The same couple from before overtook me on the lower slope and we all acknowledged that this hike was as much of a challenge coming down as it had been going up.

Starting the descent

The steep slopes of Mt Somers

The top of the boulder field

Back at the track junction after about 1.5hrs, it was then a pleasant walk back across the knolls and back into the forest below. The clouds had rolled in a little so the sun felt weaker but I was still warm enough. Getting a little tired, I found myself tripping over the tree branches in the lower slopes and I had to go back to concentrating on my footing to prevent twisting an ankle. I was very pleased to turn that last corner and find myself back at the car park. To date, this is the highest mountain I’ve hiked in New Zealand, and whilst it is definitely achievable for many, it is also not a hike to be taken lightly. Classed as an advanced hike by DOC, it is tiring and physically demanding with a large proportion of boulders and scree to negotiate. But at the end of it all, 6.5hrs after leaving it behind, I sat back in my car triumphant and more than a little pleased with myself.

Green cricket

Panorama from the Mt Somer's (south face) track

Heading back to the forest

Rock formation above the Canterbury Plains

Little Mount Peel

It didn’t take long for me to realise that this walk was something special. Nearly two hours south-west from Christchurch, nestled within Peel Forest, is Blandswood Road, where a small car park denotes the start of a myriad of walks. It just so happened to be my birthday and I was excited to be spending it summiting a new mountain.

I took the last spot in the car park, and set off up the steep Lookout Road where a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign denotes the start of the Fern walk. A gently graded stroll through the forest brings you to a junction where the Deer Spur track begins. It is possible to continue on the Fern walk which disappears into the forest for a low altitude walk, but my target for the day was Huatekerekere or Little Mount Peel, the lower of three Peel peaks. Once on the Deer Spur track, the path started to work its way up the hillside, initially still within the forest. It was a broad and obvious track for the most part, with a few high steps to negotiate, but after about 40mins, the forest opened up and the path was noticeably narrower.

Start of the Fern walk

Start of the Deer Spur Track

A brief break in the trees in Peel Forest

Peel Forest track

From the beginning it was a busy track. I had read that it was one of Canterbury’s most popular walks and this was well evidenced on that day with the regular stream of people either coming down or visible going up in the distance. After a small tarn, it wasn’t long until the view appeared, and what a view it was. As with most of the hikes that I’ve done, a haze clung over the Canterbury Plains behind me, but inland and either side were mountains, and it was stunning. From that first sighting, the peak of Little Mt Peel looked unachievable and distant. There were so many lower ridges to negotiate but I put those thoughts aside and ploughed on. The first ridge gave some welcome relief from the previous climb and I paused briefly to soak up the view.

Little Tarn

Little Mt Peel summit in the far distance

Panorama from the Deer Spur track

From then onwards, despite the constant climbing, I really enjoyed this hike because there was just a stunning view all around. I came across a family with two young children, the youngest being just 5 years old, and was impressed to see them negotiating this mountain on their own two feet. They stopped regularly meaning I eventually overtook them and about the same time it became possible to make out the summit trig and the nearby shelter in the distance. Shortly after passing them, the wind picked up and a bank of low cloud formed and whipped up and over the ridge I was heading towards, hiding the summit from view. I had previously experienced this a few months prior when hiking up Mt Thomas and I had learned that with patience, this kind of cloud is usually dispersed in a short space of time.

Cloud riding the ridge

View north

Sure enough, by the time I reached the altitude of the cloud bank, it was already lifting, and ahead of me I saw a hiker who was close to giving up. The summit was still 2 ridges away, but was tantalisingly close, and he sat off the track trying desperately to catch his breath whilst his friend continued. A descending hiker encouraged him to keep going, letting him know how close he was, and with the two children not far behind me, he seemed to get a second wind, and pushed on shortly after I passed him. The second last ridge involved a bit of hauling up a boulder face, and I reflected on how good a work-out I was getting. The last ridge was a walk in the park, and sweaty yet satisfied, I found myself crossing that last section with the hut and summit right in front of me.

Summit hut & trig just about visible

The path already travelled with the Plains below

View north near the summit

Nearly there!

Approaching the summit

The Tristram Harper Memorial Hut appears to perch on the side of the mountain a short distance below the summit. I bypassed the track to it and made the final ascent to the trig marker that stood proud on the summit (1311m). Despite the cloud building up inland, it was a fantastic view. Mt Peel and Middle Mt Peel were clearly visible, looking deceptively close and achievable, and both to the north and the south, other mountain ranges rolled off into the distance. The haze persisted over the Canterbury Plains, and above them, the hut and the lateral saddles of Little Mt Peel rolled down to meet them.

Tristram Harper Memorial Hut

Looking inland towards Mt Peel

Summit panorama looking south

Summit track heading off towards Middle Mt Peel and Mt Peel

Being such a popular walk, I didn’t have the summit to myself for long. There was plenty of people milling between the hut and the summit, so after enjoying some lunch, I left it behind for the next lot of people. I had previously made the decision to descend via the South Ridge Track, making the whole walk a loop. Everyone else was heading down the same way they’d come up (Deer Spur Track), and having read a warning on the DOC website that the South Ridge track was only suitable for experienced hikers with back country navigational skills, I had spent a lot of the hike up, trying to pick out the track on the opposing ridge for the descent. From the summit, I could see it disappearing in the distance, and felt it looked perfectly achievable so decided to stick to my guns.

Just below the summit was the hut which I discovered contained the family with the two young boys and the hiker who had nearly given up. They were all chatting away, and after signing in to the guest book, I left them to it. A DOC sign on the side of the hut pointed towards the South Ridge track and I picked my way through some undergrowth towards the drop toilet, from where the track split off. I peered over the edge, decided it was doable, and made the commitment to follow through. I had read in a blog that this would be a steep descent, so I knew there would be no backtracking once I’d started. Straight away, I found myself having to lower myself gingerly over boulders but it was such a beautiful day, it was easy to follow the orange poles disappearing into the distance.

Canterbury Plains

Summit trig from the shelter

Tristram Harper Memorial Hut from the start of the South Ridge track

South Ridge track disappearing into the distance

The South Ridge Track involved a rapid descent, and the track was so overgrown, that I spent a lot of the time staring at my feet to watch my footing, that I hadn’t realised how quick the descent had been until I stopped on a lower ridge to admire the butterflies that were everywhere. The mountains to the south were beautiful, a viewpoint that hadn’t been afforded from the Deer Spur track, and looking back towards the summit, the hut and trig point were like little dots on the horizon. As the altitude dropped away, the track became more and more overgrown in places, and at times I found myself chest deep in bushes barging my way through the under growth. I focused on the orange poles to guide me through, but I stopped regularly because there were butterflies everywhere and the view all around was again exceedingly stunning.

The track through the vegetation

Panorama from the South Ridge track

Hiking the South Ridge track

Little Mt Peel summit from the South Ridge track

Mountains to the south

Eventually though, I hit a basic little post with an orange arrow to guide me off the ridge, and I started the final descent back into the forest. The view remained briefly before I was encompassed by trees again. This final section was quite steep and I negotiated several sections in a crouched position to prevent me slipping, but even then, I found myself on my butt twice. This is not a track I would have wanted to take in the opposite direction. Within the forest, with nothing but trees to look at, I sped up a little, eager to reach the waterfall. Finally the path broke out at Emily stream, crossed the stream and headed up the embankment on the other side. Just a few minutes later, I reached the end point of the track where it met the Emily Falls track.

Little Mt Peel summit

Leaving the ridge behind

It was only a couple of minutes walk to Emily Falls which were pretty, but not easy to see without crossing the stream to the other side. There were few flying insects to annoy me, so I enjoyed watching the water for a while before retracing my steps. Back at the track junction, the DOC sign detailed 45mins back to Blandswood road, and I pushed on, still with a slight skip in my step. I was a little confused when the path came out at a stream and seemed to just disappear. An orange arrow pointed to the left but all I could see was the stream. Picking my way up the stream, I found another orange arrow letting me know I was heading in the right direction. After a while though, the stream got harder to negotiate and I found it strange that I was supposed to be following it so far. I decided to back track towards the last arrow, and in doing so had a differing viewpoint which allowed me to realise I’d walked past the path leading out of the water.

Emily Falls

Emily Falls

Walking up stream

Finally back on track, after climbing up the bank, it was an easy walk through the lower forest, past the turnoff for Rata falls, emerging back onto the lower section of Lookout Road just above its junction with Blandswood Road where my car lay waiting. The DOC sign detailed a 3hr ascent on Deer Spur Track (versus a 3.5hr ascent on South Ridge Track), with half an hour less for the descent on each path. I surprised myself by reaching the summit in just over 2 hours, and after spending about 45mins at the top, I made it back down again in about 2.5hrs. I’m glad I did the loop, but having done it once, I’ll stick to the Deer Spur track both ways next time. On a clear and non-blustery day, the South Ridge track is definitely achievable by anyone of reasonable fitness, but with exposed sections, and parts that are quite overgrown, it is not a track to be done on a windy or low visibility day. But with such views, and an enjoyable climb up, this hike quickly jumped to the top of my list of favourite hikes to do in Canterbury.

Track junction

Peak Hill

It’s a great feeling when you finally achieve something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time. Whilst some of the mountains I’ve been hiking of late have been only recent discoveries, there are a few that have been on my radar almost as long as I’ve lived in the country.

I’m becoming a regular user of Canterbury’s back roads as I make the weekly trip from Christchurch to various peaks within the eastern border of the Southern Alps. About an hour and a half south-west of the Garden City, along an exceedingly long and winding road lies Lake Coleridge, nestled snugly in a valley between some mountains. The road itself snakes near the Rakaia river which flows past the base of Mt Hutt, one of the region’s most popular ski centres. Before the village of Lake Coleridge, it turns briefly north, before turning inland again down a long, but reasonable quality of unsealed road.

Peak Hill is very much visible from some distance away, and eventually a small patch of grass is reached to pull up in where a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign marks the start of the hike. Having studied the route on Topomap.co.nz, I was a little disappointed to discover that the loop track on the website didn’t exist on the DOC map, as I much prefer walking in a loop rather than going up and down the same route. Pushing my disappointment aside, I headed off under the glare of the sun. Like Mt Guy a few weeks prior, there was not a single piece of shade the whole way up.

Start of Peak Hill track

Peak Hill track map

Crossing a stile into private land, the fence line is followed to the right and then up the side of the paddock until another stile takes you onto conservation land. From the very beginning, there is a lovely view all around of the surrounding mountains as well as the wonderful blue of Lake Coleridge which appears almost immediately on the hike. Once on the conservation land, the incline begins at a constant, though reasonably comfortable rate. Orange poles lead the way, although for the most part, the trail is well trodden, with just a few patches of scree to negotiate higher up the first section.

Lake Coleridge

Peak Hill Conservation Area

Climbing Peak Hill

The changing shape of Lake Coleridge

An information board on a low ridge makes for a nice spot to pause and admire the lake below. From here, the path follows a fence line up and over a number of lower ridges, including a section which is quite exposed. There was a bit of wind about and it buffeted me slightly as I continued my ascent. The view is relentless with an increasing amount of the lake becoming visible as well as the Rakaia river valley upstream, making this an exceedingly appealing walk.

Peak Hill summit in the distance

Lake Coleridge panorama

The path up the ridge

Lake Coleridge on the ascent

After about 1.5hr, I reached the windy summit (1240m). An information board details how the ice field used to lie in this valley in the previous ice age. Peak Hill itself would have stuck up above the ice like a little island. No matter the direction you look, there is something beautiful to look at, be it Mt Hutt across the Rakaia river, the snow capped peaks inland, or Lake Coleridge with its flanking mountains. I had the summit to myself, something which I’m always happy about, giving me the chance to eat my lunch with only the sound of the crickets and the wind for company. It was a gloriously sunny day, but the wind meant the need for an extra layer whilst I relaxed at the top.

Information board at the summit

Looking inland from the summit

Lake Coleridge from the summit

Mt Hutt range from the summit

Looking towards the Southern Alps from the summit

After about half an hour, with the wind beginning to whip up in a frenzy, I retraced my steps. This time, the exposed ridge had me feeling the brunt of the wind as it became strong enough to push me slightly. Any stronger and this section would become dangerous. That aside, it was a pleasant hike down with the lake full frontal, and as I reached the information board, I came across the only other hikers on the mountain that day. I’m still taken aback at times to see people out hiking that are totally unprepared. Here were two hikers, one of whom was clearly struggling with the gradient, out on an exposed mountain with no visible water supply, and heading off to an exposed summit in the afternoon on a windy day. Especially in this case when the DOC sign at the bottom warns about the weather and need for water on this hike.

Peninsula jutting into Lake Coleridge

Rakaia river

Spider's web near the trail

I reached my car after about 3hrs very satisfied with this hike. Despite its exposure to the elements, the constant view from start to finish, as well as the gradient gain make this an exceedingly enjoyable hike, and ranks near the top of my favourite hikes in Canterbury.

Mount Oxford

I can be a glutton for punishment sometimes.¬†I am currently in training for two major hikes, one later this year and the other next year. When the weather has allowed, I’ve done my best to get out and about amongst Canterbury’s many mountains in an effort to put in some quality hiking hours. After getting a little disheartened towards the end of the previous week’s hike round Lake Clearwater, I felt reenergised to tackle something else the following weekend.

Around an hour of pleasant driving north-west of Christchurch lies Oxford forest, from which Mt Oxford pushes skyward. Down the gravel track of Mountain Rd lies one of two car parks from where several walks are reached. Mt Oxford summit track is a popular walking route, and the car park was full when I arrived. I’ve hiked some lesser known peaks where I’ve had the whole mountain to myself so to hear the voices of other hikers blowing in the wind was an unusual experience for me.

Starting at the Coopers Creek car park, the options are to follow the Ryde Falls track up stream to the waterfalls or to cross the west branch of Coopers Creek to summit Mt Oxford. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the start gave a 3 hr estimation to summit, and I set off on the relatively flat route at a good pace. Early on I was overtaken by a man out with his dog who were running up the summit.

DOC Track Map at Cooper's Creek carp park

After a wander along a 4×4 track past bee country and a lodge near the creek, the path veers off into the forest, within which it remains for the first hour of the hike. The altitude gain is there but as constant as it is it’s not too taxing and through brief breaks through the tree line you can appreciate that you are rising above the Canterbury Plains. There was plenty of bird song filling the air and I was regularly accompanied by little fantails flitting through the trees. I was feeling good and felt like the summit must be getting close. I stepped out of the treeline and into the beautiful sunshine around me, to discover that there was still a long way to go.

Mt Oxford viewed from near the car park

The lower reaches of Oxford forest

After that initial hour, the rest of the hike is exposed to the elements, and aside from a few small plateaus, the altitude gain continued for nearly another 2 hours. I passed lots of people coming down, giving the occasional sound disturbance to the birds and the crickets. That aside, it was a very peaceful hike with next to no wind. The higher I got, the further the Canterbury Plains disappeared behind me, and eventually, and by this point gratefully, I found myself at the summit (1364m), and was secretly pleased to have it to myself. To one side the Plains spread out towards the horizon, Banks Peninsula just about visible through the haze. On the other side of the mountain, mountains rolled away into the distance, and I settled down on a makeshift bench on the summit to enjoy some well deserved lunch with that awesome view.

Neighbouring mountains from half-way up Mt Oxford

Looking up towards Mt Oxford summit

Canterbury Plains from Mt Oxford summit

Mountain view from Mt Oxford summit

Mountain view from Mt Oxford summit

From the summit, the quickest option would be to return to the car park by the same route. There is also the option to hike to Wharfedale Hut deeper in the mountains, or to take the loop track back to Coopers Creek along the summit. Having soaked up the view for over half an hour, and feeling refreshed, I set off across the summit with the neighbouring mountain range in full view. The summit marker gave a 45min time estimate to the junction for the Hut, and I headed off at a reasonable pace. For the second week in a row, I was surprised to discover that the marker had underestimated the time for this section which is highly unusual for the DOC signs. Following the ridge line but descending slightly, the vegetation was quite sparse until eventually the tree line was reached again. I passed some hikers who were tired and sweaty, and finally, an hour after leaving the summit, I hit the first junction.

Following the ridgeline

Alpine flowers on the ridge

Ridgeline view

View from ridge track

Neighbouring mountains

Persisting on the Mt Oxford track, the next junction was listed as an hour away. There was little to see but for the forest which enveloped the path, and it was an hour of ups and downs which felt like forever until eventually the path broke out at another track. Looking left there was a marker a few steps away, and I was gutted to discover the car park was still another 2.5hrs away according to the sign. It was difficult to gauge my location within the forest because there was no view, but I knew I was still quite high up. I can get quite bored with forest walks sometimes as it quickly descends into one tree after another, and by now 5.5hrs after leaving my car, I was a little bit fed up with walking. But there wasn’t exactly any other choice but to push on.

The upper reaches of Oxford forest on the descent

One of many track junctions

Taking the Korimako trail to Ryde Falls junction, I had previously made the decision to take the detour to visit the waterfalls, even although I was tired. At the Ryde Falls junction, it is signposted as a 15min walk to the waterfalls, but I power walked the distance, dropping down the bank, crossing the stream and pushing up the other side. There are 5 tiers to the waterfall, but I could only really see 3. The falls were in shadow with the sun starting to drop, and I looked at them for long enough to make me feel like the side trip had been worth it, before retracing my steps. With more time, there is a campsite here and the option of climbing up or down the side of the falls to get a differing view. As the waterfalls can be reached from 2 separate car parks, it is possible to hike there without having to tackle Mt Oxford first.

Ryde Falls track

Ryde Falls

Like the hike round Lake Clearwater the week prior, that final portion of the hike was quite draining. With nothing but trees for well over an hour, I could only focus on getting back to my car and taking off my boots. I was so pleased when the path finally broke out of the trees again and I could finally appreciate just how far I’d walked. Still up a hillside, the sun continued to illuminate the countryside and the final stretch was a pleasant evening walk round a headland and along the river bank. Finally reaching the Cooper’s Creek car park, mine was the only car left, and I happily kicked off my boots, ate the rest of my food and set off on the hour long drive home.

Emerging out of the forest

It is unusual for DOC signs to give too short a time frame for a hike, but regardless of the route chosen and despite its popularity, these are some full-on hikes not to be taken lightly. The full loop took me nearly 8hrs including about half an hour at the summit and the half hour detour to Ryde’s Falls. It is possible to summit Mt Oxford and take the same route back in about 5hrs, but for the full loop track, you’d better love forests!

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: